Why the built environment should take lessons from Lego
There’s no denying the social and commercial value of our built environment. From housing, schools and office buildings to factories, stadiums and retail, our demands on buildings remain diverse and uncompromising. But as the world’s population continues to grow, the need to fundamentally re-imagine the ways we finance, construct and value these buildings has never been greater.
There is an ever-increasing body of research exploring the application of circular economy principles within the built environment – from buildings as material banks to those that are reusable or redeployable. But as innovative technical solutions emerge and gain traction, how can we scale up successful models and ensure demand amongst clients and investors is strong enough to take on and transform the status quo?
The challenge is huge: the built environment sector accounts for 59% of UK waste, whilst also consuming vast amounts of virgin raw materials used on average only once in their high-value form (material reuse tonnage declined by an astonishing 25% between 1998 and 2007). Beyond material wastage, we also need to consider the energy-intense nature of material production.
Meanwhile, construction supply chains can be adversarial, fragmented, and risk-averse. Add to this a complex policy landscape and a distinct lack of finances and/or commercial incentives and we’re left with a lack of demand for reusable buildings and components that, left unchecked, will undermine any progress towards a more sustainable future.
Meeting these challenges will require us to reimagine the way the built environment works. How can we get from linear models of extract, deploy, use and demolish to a more sustainable loop in which our built environment meets key circular economy principles? Can we live more “Lego-like lives” in which we break up, reconfigure and create new structures from old with minimal wastage?
The message we hear from construction businesses is that much of the technology and thinking either exists or is not far away; what is required is demand at a level of certainty and scale to encourage investment in new circular solutions and supporting infrastructure. The belief is that sufficient demand will reconfigure supply. So we need a different approach to construction driven by shifts in cultural, social and economic thinking and underpinned by viable business and financial models.
But what does a more sustainable built environment look like? Imagine a world where buildings are flexibly changed, adapted, expanded and reduced according to demand or use. A world where deconstruction and redeployment are much more commonplace. Where a building’s value is not seen as a short-term capital cost but a future resource investment in which buildings and even individual components are recoverable, relocatable and returnable.
Imagine building components and modules being leased then returned to the owner when no longer needed as part of a vibrant, competitive marketplace working to and aligned by common standards. Homes flex in line with the changing needs of tenants and residents, avoiding the cost and disruption of multiple moves. People stay longer in their homes. They strengthen bonds with their community. Meanwhile, tenants in short-term accommodation can access safe, quality spaces – and all of this at no extra cost.
It’s an exciting and ambitious vision and one that we will only achieve through systems change. We need to create a new market that engages multiple stakeholders, addresses the root causes of unsustainable practice, and encourages the replication of successful commercial models.
Excitingly, there are some signals of change, and we’re starting to see promising pilots already in motion in the UK. Take ZedPods for example. Designed for existing hardstanding space or difficult-to-develop land, these innovative modular houses are manufactured offsite, with a focus on low-energy usage and rapid delivery. Or there’s PLACE/Ladywell, a pop-up, deployable proposition used as a short-term solution (one to four years) providing housing and ground floor retail establishments on vacant sites awaiting redevelopment.
There’s no question that the reusable buildings discipline is in its infancy. It will take time to build up and share the knowledge required for circular building design and creation, and to transition from niche, pioneering activities into mainstream practice. From research to date, it’s clear there needs to be a strong vision and strategy driven by a forward-thinking client. Economic and carbon savings can be made over the lifetime of a building, whilst significant social (and hence commercial) value can be derived from buildings that transform to reflect the changing needs of families, local communities and businesses.
But it all needs to start with making a credible business case for investment. Taking solutions to scale and mainstreaming new approaches requires a critical mass of progressive clients and investors, who in turn generate the demand needed to reshape construction supply chains and their supporting infrastructure.
Funded by Climate-KIC, a collaboration involving Forum for the Future conducted a pathfinder project scoping out possible business models for the mainstream adoption of reusable buildings/components. Five were identified and compared against business as usual.
1 Flexible Designed for “in use” internal layout changes to meet both daily and longer-term needs
2 Adaptable In response to community needs or demographic changes, adaptable models are readily transformable, catering for longer term changes (eg building expansion or alterations in use/purpose)
3 Recoverable Designed for deconstruction so residual value can be recovered at end of life
4 Relocatable Allows for fast deployment and redeployment in response to changing needs such as changes in housing requirements or in office density
5 Returnable Leasing of buildings (and components) for short term and/or one-off requirements.
The research highlighted that the commercial attractiveness of each model would vary from sector to sector – the expectations and tolerance levels of social housing providers would be very different from clients procuring healthcare facilities or commercial office space. And while having a strong business case and model is vital, it’s only the first step. Delivering on our vision then involves nurturing supply-side innovation and new skills rather than defaulting to familiar, more readily understood approaches.
This is why the system lens is critical. We need to challenge and redefine the arguably now dogmatic finance and procurement policies that shape construction. We need to engage a huge range of stakeholders – from clients, supply chain companies and the finance community to policymakers, regulators and thought leaders. Without this shift in culture and mindset, the danger is that emerging methods and models don’t get the encouragement they deserve.
And we need to act now. Doing so will help ensure reusability is built into government and sector procurement strategies. It will create much-needed visibility for reusable buildings as a solution to both construction’s poor environmental footprint, and the ever-shifting demands of the communities, towns and cities the industry serves.
Some may argue that the UK’s construction system is no longer fit for purpose, and that the incumbents are likely to be disrupted by new entrants into the marketplace. I believe the industry does possess the inherent problem-solving skills and creative appetite required. It simply needs to be confident that demand is there for circular solutions, and that this market will remain and grow.
A number of strengthening global trends will help. Growing digitisation and smart building offers, the emergence of robotics, the likely mainstreaming of off-site manufacture, and the product-to-service shift are just some that will reinforce and support circular business models in the years to come.
Change over the next decade may be subtle on the eye and so short-term the buildings around you may not seem different. But if we’re successful, the commercial and delivery models that underpin them really will be.
This article was written by Martin Hunt is principal project manager at global sustainability non-profit organisation Forum for the Future it was originally published here